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by Jess Montgomery
Minotaur Books, March 2021
342 pages
ISBN: 1250623405

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

THE STILLS is the third installment in Jess Montgomery's Kinship series, which charts the exploits of reluctant Sheriff Lily Ross in the simultaneously slow and dangerous world of Prohibition-era rural Ohio.

In Lily's first outing, THE WIDOWS (2018), she became sheriff somewhat reluctantly upon the death of her husband, the previous occupant of that post. Montgomery loosely based Lily on the historical first woman sheriff in the state of Ohio, who earned her badge in somewhat similar circumstances.

Consistently across the Kinship trilogy--THE WIDOWS, THE HOLLOWS, and now THE STILLS-- Montgomery meticulously revives the dusty townships of the 1920s Midwest, with their byzantine, barely-hidden networks of moonshiners, illegal distributors, and 'revenuers,' or, hated authorities who try to police the brisk trade in contraband alcohol.

In THE STILLS, Lily investigates the apparent poisoning of a local moonshiner's stock—a woman not unknown to her, problematically. The poisoning comes to light when a boy accidentally drinks it: a boy who might have seen some kind of criminal activity.

Meanwhile, a revenuer has mysteriously vanished and Mrs. Fiona Vogel, the locally-born wife of a big businessman from Cincinnati, has come back to town with her domineering husband. Expecting a child, Fiona has plans to make her own break from her marriage.

Montgomery deftly shifts between these interwoven stories, and particularly between Lily and Fiona’s perspectives, drawing suspense out of dramatic irony as they approach each others' secrets.

The result is a mesmerizing tapestry of mystery, history, and poetry—the latter on account of Montgomery’s observant, immediate, Faulkneresque command of social realism and interior monologue. "She’d explained away or hidden earlier bouts of morning sickness, planned to chalk this latest round up to the twisty-turny automobile ride," Fiona plots. "Truth be told, she’s holding back the news because she wants to reveal it when it will be most useful."

Why does Rut need to plot against her own family, using the notion of a child as a weapon? And what else might she be willing to conceal from her husband and their kin, or need to conceal from them? These are among the mysteries that Montgomery ultimately teases out. Fiona in particular is a fascinating character, almost overshadowing Lily with her fierce determination to alter her life by any means necessary. She shares with Lily kind of clandestine, transgressive kinship.

Prohibition was an infraction of civil liberties and the wrong reaction to the problems caused by alcoholism, but, as Montgomery insightfully shows, it also gave women whose mothers were essentially Victorian the opportunity to go into business for themselves, taking charge, to a certain extent, of their own lives. Lily is no moonshiner, but she, too, fits that type, making a place for herself in public life, but a place occasioned by the proliferation of crime.

This recounting of parallel lives makes for a great mystery series, but much more than that, too.

§ Rebecca Nesvet, of Little River, Wisconsin, teaches English Literature at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, and researches Victorian penny "bloods" and "dreadfuls." She has written for Reviewing the Evidence since 2004.

Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, November 2021

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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